Why do we climb?
Edwin Siew answered, it’s because mountaineering reflects life’s uncertainties and difficulties. In a nutshell, that’s how this Kazakhstan trip was like – full of disappointments, discomfort and pain. But nonetheless, a mountaineer craves to go back to the mountains to experience it all over again. We love the beauty of the mountains (that we get to see for our eyes only) and the craziness of events that happen there – the subzero temperatures, the snowstorms and the possibility of death if you make a single mistake.
On summit day, we awoke early morning at 230am. Still groggy, we rushed to put on our layers and technical equipment while cramming some breakfast into our mouths before our 4am set off time. The first rope team (which we were in) went ahead of the pack to set off to break the trail. After the first hour or so, our bodies warmed up as we trudged through hard snow and we started getting used to the cold. Then came the slushy snow: for sections at a time, we would sink into ankle-deep snow and we would have to summon that extra strength to get out of each hole. Snow sometimes crept through our gaters and wet our inner wear, which made it uncomfortable for us, but we ignored it and continued moving towards our destination.
The next challenge was crevasse crossing. You have to trust your ropemates in front and behind you to look out for you, whilst you do the same for them. There were multiple instances where people fell into crevasses and you had to react quickly and pull them out of the icy cold water. Unfortunately, Nic (our MIR 18 President) fell into a river crevasse and soaked his boots completely, which made for an uncomfortable climb for him thereafter.
When the base of the mountain was finally within sight, we were exhausted. Every step took tremendous effort but the destination still seemed beyond reach. Even though a few hours had passed, it felt like we made much progress. As we neared Ong Siew May Peak, we approached a section that had a chance of falling rocks. Thus, Saken (our team’s Kazakh guide) made us walk faster which seemed to drain the last of our energy. Yet, suddenly, we arrived at the base of the mountain for our well-deserved rest.
Climbing up Ong Siew May was gruelling, as our trail was lined with rocks that crumbled beneath our weight and snowed that collected on our boots, making each step heavy. Eventually, we reached the summit around 11am. It was inexplicable feeling to be so high up and surrounded by mountains. Everyone was blown away by the extraordinary view, tingled with the feeling of accomplishment and excitement from standing on a narrow cornice on the peak of a mountain.
On the way back, the sun had melted the top layer of snow and the rock layer of Ong Siew May was exposed. We started glissading down the loose scree rock which made us feel like we were Frozone. The last hour or so was the hardest; we were all wet and uncomfortable and physically drained. Nicholas fell into a river crevasse a second time because the ice block he was standing on collapsed. He must have felt very refreshed. Eventually, we all made it back to our camp safely and that’s the important part – mountaineering is not just about summiting the mountain, it’s also our responsibility to return safely.
Stuck on Siemienova Glacier
The toughest day arrived when we were scheduled to take a helicopter back out to Kakara Base Camp. The heli people-in-charge didn’t give us a fixed time to depart. As long as the weather was good, we would set off so we woke up early to get ready. By 8am we were all packed. We spent a good hour taking down the tents and transporting our stuff to the makeshift helipad on the glacier. We were feeling pretty good about going back, after enduring so much physical hardship. Morale was high as we joked and took what we thought would be the last photos with that icy white backdrop. Then the clouds started coming in and soon we found ourselves in a snowstorm. We huddled close together for warmth while we waited.
It soon became clear that the helicopter won’t be coming, at least for the next few hours. Begrudgingly we dragged the mess tent back up to our campsite and hastily set it up. It seemed like we were waiting for years for the storm to blow over as we were hungry and cold. We hoped, and even prayed to our various gods, that someone from the helicopter would call as Edwin held on tightly to the satellite phone. At 5pm, the decision was made to lay out our sleeping mats and bags as we would be spending another night on the glacier. I could feel the air sinking when those words left his mouth. It was going to be another freezing night on the glacier. Alas, man is left at the mercy of the mountains.
Principles of Mountaineering
Being independent and self-sufficient is one of the tenets of mountaineering. Thus, unlike the Nepal TMC, we had to cook our own meals. Being non-cooks and lazy students, we just cooked instant noodles most of the time. It is a skill to plan “edible” meals in advance which can fulfill your nutritional needs. Pro tip: bah kwa, a packet of Milo and an orange makes for really good snacks.
Edwin and Khalid (our guides) also stressed on the importance of waste management on the mountains as it was becoming an ethical issue in recent times. Climbers would enter into untouched environments and leave their trash everywhere, stripping these places of their beauty and attracting scavengers. There were three waste management strategies that we learnt during this trip:
Firstly, when it comes to disposing of our fecal matter, we can either defecate into plastic bags and bring them back to the city or defecate on big pieces of rocks to be spread out and dried under the sun.
Secondly, we should compact our trash as much as possible so that it would be easier to transport them back out to the city for disposal. Cans should be crushed, plastic should be folded and tied so that they would not fly away if the trash bag broke, and food waste should be scattered or poured into a deep hole in the ground so that it would not attract scavengers.
Alternatively, we can minimise our waste on the mountains by doing some pre-trip preparations. For example, if we removed the plastic wrappers of the instant noodles and placed them in a communal bag to be brought on the expedition, you would then only need to dispose of one piece of plastic rather than multiple tiny pieces.
In Kazakhstan, we had to be responsible for ourselves. If we were tired or cold, there were no porters or Sherpas there to hold our hands and bring us hot water. This trip is definitely an eye opener to a different side of mountaineering, compared to Nepal TMC which felt more like a guided tour. Looking back, it is a valuable experience for MIR members to experience Kazakhstan TMC despite it being a non-technical climb.
Written By Tan Yu Peng and Lydia Tham (Kazakhstan 2019)
MIR Kazakhstan 2019 Team:
Nicholas Goh (Co-Team Leader)
Teoh Tai Ker (Co-Team Leader)
Tan Yu Peng
Nguyen Minh Anh